Fair Game

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Fair Game
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In 2003, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a high-ranking CIA spook asked by her superiors to recruit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), to investigate the presence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He traveled to Niger, Africa to find out if Saddam was importing “yellow cake” to make nuclear bombs, but Joe finds no sign and reports so to his bosses. However, the wheels turning at the highest levels of the Bush administration decide to not believe him and Joe publishes an op-ed article about his findings on WMDs. Bush officials decide to make him pay for his “disloyalty.” To punish him, Valerie’s secret identity as a CIA agent is blown in a syndicated New York Times column and she and Joe become “Fair Game.”

Robin:
This does not paint a pretty picture of the upper levels of the George. W. Bush administration, including former Vice President Chaney. Director/cinematographer Doug Liman tells the true story about a hard-working CIA professional, Valerie Plame Wilson, who has clandestinely traveled the world to make things safer for America following the 9/11 attack. Her husband, Joe, a former ambassador, is trying none too successfully to start a consulting firm. So, when Valerie suggests to her superiors that he may be willing to investigate the WMD situation in Africa, Joe is offered the job.

Wilson uses his familiarity with Africa and political contacts in Niger and, after some deep digging, finds that the nuclear materials threat to be a sham, returns home and makes his report. Meanwhile, Valerie plies her secret trade, using her cover as business exec to dupe their friends and give the illusion of a normal life. She makes a parallel investigation on the WMD issue, involving aluminum canisters, and concludes that there is no issue. With both wife and husband coming out against the government policy – Saddam is making nukes and needs to be stopped – they become, essentially, enemies of the state. “Fair Game” is about the brave fight the couple puts up against the daunting power of the Bush administration.

Doug Liman is no stranger to action thrillers. Here, though, he concentrates on the intellectual thrill side of things, dealing with the events surrounding the Wilsons and WMDs. The script, by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, utilizes the Wilsons’ books as their focus, giving the film a liberal, David vs. Goliath spin. The real life couple, because of the truths they uncovered, was nearly destroyed by those in the government they pissed off. It is also about the abuse of power that our government can bring to bear on those who simply speak the truth - a truth, though, that goes against policy.

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are both outstanding as Valerie and Joe. Watts gives one of her best performances to date and Sean Penn is just a damn fine actor. There is a palpable chemistry between the characters as they must face the monolith of those government officials calling the shots. While Liman and company do not implicate former president Bush in the attempt to destroy the Wilsons or the cover up over WMDs – which, once the US failed to find evidence of nuclear weapons, expanded to include biological and chemical weapons – they do point to the vice-president and other high ranking Bush officials involved in the cover up.

As expected, Doug Liman’s cinematographic eye makes for excellent lensing and the rest of the techs are all superior. Some will say that this id Liman’s best, yet. I will say that it is one of his best – do not forget “The Bourne Identity,” a truly fine action thriller. “Fair Game” is a step in the evolution of a fine filmmaker who knows how to tell a story. I give it a B+.

Laura:
When former ambassador to Niger Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn, Watts's "21 Grams" costar) sees television news reports and a State of the Union address express the exact opposite of his findings on yellowcake being sold to Iraq, a study he did at the behest of the CIA, he writes a rebuttal for the New York Times.  His anger at the administration's twisting of the truth brings a volley back from the White House when Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, Penn's "21 Grams" costar), is outed as a CIA operative, ending her career at a particularly perilous time.  White House advisor Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre, "The Bounty Hunter") arrogantly informs a reporter that Wilson's wife was "Fair Game."

Working from a script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who adapted both Plame and Wilson's books, "Bourne Identity" director Doug Liman delivers a political suspense thriller based on real life that puts Paul Greengrass's fictional, in-the-field "The Green Zone" to shame.  Unfortunately, the media misconception that Valerie Plame was just some type of CIA administrator has stuck with many who will be surprised to see just what was at stake here besides personal slander and ruination.  "Fair Game" should infuriate its audience all over again at the administration that keeps on giving.

It's fascinating to watch Wilson and Plume with their friends, which is how the film opens.  They have to keep straight faces while Jeff (Tom McCarthy, "Duplicity") or Fred ('Modern Family's' Ty Burrell) parrots back lazy media parroting of Bush sanctioned information which they know is not true.  Except, as is seen when his wife is outed, Wilson can't quite keep a lid on, calling a buddy who posits a theoretical question about a twitchy Muslim on a plane a racist.  (It should be noted that although Wilson gets hot and bothered by lies, corruption and ignorance, Penn gives a very controlled and understated performance here, one of his best ever which unfortunately may be overlooked because he's not sputtering or a Boston mobster or gay.)

Wilson, who is trying to launch a consulting business, is now a househusband caring for young twins and a bit put out by his wife's heavy and secretive travel schedule.  Plame has just been promoted to oversee the CIA's investigation into WMDs and is hard at work to contact the scientists who worked Hussein's nuclear program back in the 90's.  She secures the nervous cooperation of Zahraa (Liraz Charhi), a medical doctor who agrees to travel to Iraq and question her brother, Hammad (Khaled Nabawy, "Kingdom of Heaven").  Meanwhile, Valerie's bosses ask her if her husband would do them a favor and check out a piece of intelligence involving Niger.  Her immediate supervisor, Jack (Michael Kelly, "Changeling"), asks that she sign a letter of recommendation to sew up the deal, for which Wilson will not be paid.  We follow his opposite-of-glamorous trip and his logic in asserting that there is no way Niger could have produced the yellowcake they are accused of selling to Iraq.  After his report's been turned in, Valerie and CIA staff meet with Joe Turner (Kristoffer Ryan Winters), who has written a report about tubes found in Iraq that he claims are pieces of a nuclear warhead but which everyone else in the room clearly does not believe.  But the CIA keep getting visited by Scooter Libby (David Andrews, "A Walk to Remember," "Dear John"), looking for WMD confirmation from Cheney's office and soon they hear Turner is briefing the President.  Then the media follows and Wilson retaliates.  Valerie is frozen out of the CIA just as she's getting Hussein's former nuclear scientists and their families out of the country - they're stranded instead, now a target (and all had reported back that any Iraqi nuclear program was dismantled in the early 90's - Hammad's been reduced to working at a fertilizer company).

The strain put upon the Wilson/Plame marriage - Wilson fights back publicly while his wife remains loyal to the CIA - almost ends it and the film's third act indicts not only the White House insiders who seek to discredit them but the media who fall right into step (the media who both accuse Plame of ordering her husband's trip and of only being a secretary without ever noting their own contradiction).  The filmmakers find all kinds of subtle parallels to weave through the film, making its message richer.  Joe tells a college crowd about how he was the last U.S. official to speak with Hussein and how the leader told him he'd rather kill a friend by mistake than allow an enemy to live, a statement Wilson says makes the man a monster.  How neatly Hussein's words foreshadow the Bush Administration's actions towards Wilson's wife.  Wilson and Plame are brilliant dramatic counterparts themselves, Joe into democracy in all its idealism, Valerie a realist more conversant with secret acts behind the scenes.

Penn and Watts, playing their second on screen married couple, are terrific together.  Penn, who has the thickest head of hair I've ever seen on a human being, makes full use of it for the Beethoven-like mop sported by Wilson, giving him a slight dishevelment at odds with his business suits that compliment his more stay-at-home status.  As Joe, he's forceful but not loud, righteous but not proactively aggressive. Watts is quieter, more measured as Plame, a stiff upper lip lifer who's slow to realize just what personal harm has been done her.  She walks that fine line that leaves blame towards Joe's actions in the air without being wielded as accusation.  Support is chock full of fine character actors like Brooke Smith ("The Silence of the Lambs) and Jessica Hecht ("Dan in Real Life," "Whatever Works") in tiny roles as Plame friends and Bruce McGill and Noah Emmerich as CIA officials. Sam Shepard has a pivotal scene as Valerie's career military dad.  Michael Kelly is cold as ice as Valerie's CIA super.

Liman's film is realistically understated in look.  Basement CIA offices show signs of former wall hangings. The Wilson/Plame household is well do to but obviously the home of young twins.  D.C. skies tend towards grey. The film contains real life news footage and wraps satisfactorily with the real life Plame's testimony to Congress in 2007 about the covert nature of her former job.

A-
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